By Andrea Cadieux
As the last Desert Wind rolled into Las Vegas on May 8, 1997 it was an hour late. The press and all the passengers had been waiting with great anticipation. Most of them were gamblers and knew that the loss of this train was going to be a loss for them. They had relied on the Desert Wind to get them from their homes in the Midwest to Las Vegas for the gambling, the shows and the excitement of the city.
My husband, Andy, and I boarded in Salt lake City. The Desert Wind was an hour and forty minutes late for our 2:30 am departure. We awoke at 1:00am to call and check the arrival time. We arrived at 3:30 to find the station full of people waiting. I guess they didn't know about calling ahead to check the schedule.
The plans for this trip had been made well in advance. Andy has been employed by Amtrak for over 21 years, 27 years total railroad time. In 1995, with the beginning of the Red, White and Blue Employee Rider Pass program, they had also decided that anyone with 10 years of service was entitled to a free trip every five years. Andy was celebrating his 20th year in 1996. After receiving the necessary paperwork we started planning our trip west. We initially made reservations in September of 1996. At this time the Lake Shore Limited was scheduled to be discontinued from Albany, NY to Boston, MA. We would be getting on in Springfield, MA and riding the Amtrak bus to Albany. Yes! The Lake Shore Limited was saved that time and we were grateful. We are not fond of riding buses. But as the time approached for our April 27, 1997 departure again there was talk of losing the Lake Shore Limited and the Desert Wind. We were concerned again. We would be on the Lake Shore Limited at midnight on May 10, the time it was supposed to end. We were assured that the Lake Shore would finish that last run as a train and we wouldn't be put on the buses, but again the Albany to Boston section was saved. But the one thing we didn't realize is that on May 9, 1997 we would be boarding the last train east of the Desert Wind.
It was during the breakfast announcements from the Chief of on Board Services that we heard that we were indeed on the last trip east of the Desert Wind. It would also be the last trip for one of the car attendants. I wish I had written down his name. He had 41 years of railroad service and had been with Amtrak since the beginning. I could see that we were going to do some celebrating and remembering on this trip.
Since this trip was a gift from Amtrak we had chosen to take a deluxe bedroom, complete with our own bathroom with shower. It was truly first class. We had gotten one of the older of the Superliner series of sleepers, but it was very well kept. A vase of flowers were on the table with complimentary stationery and note cards with beautiful pictures of Amtrak trains on the western routes.
Breakfast in the dining car is always a delight. I had the full breakfast of eggs cooked any style you like, hashbrowns, toast or biscuit, and bacon, ham or sausage. Andy choose the biscuits and gravy to go with his eggs that morning and we shared a delicious plate of fresh fruit, a combination of melons, grapes and strawberries. We were seated with some people that has been on the train as we had traveled west almost two weeks before. They were headed for Boston and then the bus to Falmouth, MA. Of course the subject of this being the last train came up and they expressed great disappointment. They said they had traveled to Las Vegas 3 times on the train. They always try to go a different way, but this time wanted to ride the last train.
The scenery was beautiful as we crossed the Watasch Mountains over Soldiers Summit, from Utah into Colorado. You could see the effect of the winter snows melting and starting to erode the mountain streams. The Chief of Onboard Services came on to tell us about how the small town of Thistles, Utah had been totally wiped out by a landslide two years before. A few deer hurried away from the train as it passed. They had come down from higher elevations to feed on spring grass.
It was just before lunch that we pulled into a small town on the Utah border. We were told we had about 20 minutes if we wanted to get out and stretch our legs. There was a very enterprising young lady on the platform that had set up a stand to accommodate the trains that stopped. She had fresh fruit, candy, soft drinks, a few toys and souveniers for sale. All the passengers gathered around and bought things. At departure time, as we sat in our room, we could see her outside the window. She had a handful of money and was smiling and waving to the passengers. She was going to miss the Desert Wind for sure!
At lunch we had a wonderful waitress. She was efficient and quick; pleasant, but attended to the business of serving customers. We did have a little time to talk to her when she had finished serving our shift. She said she hadnšt worked for Amtrak very long and at this date was still unsure of where she would be working when she arrived in Chicago the next day. She was indeed a good employee and we wished her well and hoped that Amtrak would find a place for this lady that works so hard. Lunches, like breakfasts, were served on a first come first serve basis. They filled the dining room the first time and then gave out numbers.
Our car attendant was a pleasant man. He told us he had been working for Amtrak for 18 years and he would be part of the California Zephyr crew after his arrival in Chicago. I think at other times he was a good car attendant, but had a traveling companion in one of the first class compartments and seemed to have his mind there instead of the other first class passengers. Our car attendant buzzer did not work and we had to go and find him when we needed things. We were disappointed to find our room not made up after returning from a long breakfast. He had set up an area for us to get drinks and snacks at our leisure and the coffee pot was always hot.
By early afternoon we were in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. We could see there was still a lot of snow left from the blizzard we had traveled through on our westboard trip a little less than two weeks before. It was a pleasure to go through Glenhaven and see the bathers in the hot mineral springs and ride alongside the mighty Colorado river, which was very muddy at this point. Further up we noticed a pond of Canadian Geese. Many had come to nest. There were couples with their very young and couples that were still guarding the nest. I could see in a couple of weeks this pond would be full of parents and their offspring. The Chief of Onboard Services came on the intercom to tell us that the engineer has spotted a herd of elk and to watch the left side windows. There was indeed a herd of about 150 elk grazing in the field, just to the side of the train. You could tell they had seen the train before. None of them moved as we passed.
As we climbed higher into the Rockies we were interested to see the sensor wires that had been constructed to detect falling rocks that might come down on the tracks. The snow in this high elevation had nearly melted except in the woods.
In the early afternoon First Class passengers were invited to an afternoon social in the dining car to get to know all the other first class passengers. We were served beautiful platters of crackers, cheese and fruit, along with some local Colorado Wine. Later in the late afternoon the Chief came through to take the reservations for the evening meal. The dining room was filled 12 people at a time, and then 15 minutes later another 12 would come in until it was full. They kept rotating until all were fed. It seemed to be a very efficient system. The evening meals were always pleasant. On this evening we were given special souvenier menus to keep from the last trip of the Desert Wind. We were offered a choice of Roast Prime Rib of Beef, Chef's Chicken, Stuffed Rainbow Trout, which they claimed was a timeless tradition along that route, or the Pasta Selection.. There were two childrenšs selections, beef and chicken. And of course for dessert Amtrakšs famous Apple Pie...with ice-cream if you wished.
They had called the first dinner seating 15 minutes early to get us all into the car before starting into the Moffat Tunnel. The tunnel is 6 miles long and takes the train about 10 minutes to pass through. We had been told to keep all doors closed while in the tunnel to try to keep the fumes out of the cars, but I could see a haze forming in the dining car by the time we reached the end of the tunnel.
After our dinners we usually spent some time in the observation car watching the sun go down and talking with the other passengers. I often asked why they were riding the train. A lot of them said they just did not want to fly. Others said the trains stations were more convenient than getting to the airport. Still others said they just liked to relax and enjoy the scenery as they traveled. There were also the first time riders that just wanted the experience of riding the train. Another couple like us were Amtrak employees enjoying their free anniversary trip also. As Andy settled in to watch the movie of the evening I decided to go back to the room and work on my Counted Cross Stitch project for awhile. It didn't take me long to get sleepy. I just loved to be lulled to sleep by the motion and hum of the train.
By morning we were out in the flat lands again. We had breakfast with a wonderful couple from IL that had been to NV visiting friends and seeing a few of the shows in Las Vegas. The lady and I got talking about quilting and we exchanged addresses and a couple of weeks later I received two beautiful quilted coasters from her.
By now the last trip of the Desert Wind was almost over, the cake had been cut and eaten, the good byes had been said. We had truly enjoyed our trip. Tomorrow the train would start again....this time it would be called the California Zephyr.
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